by Ian Stewart
Basic Books, 2007
The title of Ian Stewart's book (he has written more than 60 others) is, of course, taken from the enigmatic last two lines of John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn":
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"--that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
But what on earth did Keats mean? T. S. Eliot called the lines "meaningless" and "a serious blemish on a beautiful poem." John Simon opened a movie review with "one of the greatest problems of art--perhaps the greatest--is that truth is not beauty, beauty not truth. Nor is it all we need to know." Stewart, a distinguished mathematician at the University of Warwick in England and a former author of this magazine's Mathematical Recreations column, is concerned with how Keats's lines apply to mathematics. "Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare," Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote. To mathematicians, great theorems and great proofs, such as Euclid's elegant proof of the infinity of primes, have about them what Bertrand Russell described as "a beauty cold and austere," akin to the beauty of great works of sculpture.
Stewart's first 10 chapters, written in his usual easygoing style, constitute a veritable history of mathematics, with an emphasis on the concept of symmetry. When you perform an operation on a mathematical object, such that after the operation it looks the same, you have uncovered a symmetry. A simple operation is rotation. No matter how you turn a tennis ball, it does not alter the ball's appearance. It is said to have rotational symmetry. Capital "H" has 180-degree rotational symmetry because it is unchanged when turned upside down. It also has mirror reflection symmetry because it looks the same in a mirror. A swastika has 90-degree rotational symmetry but lacks mirror reflection symmetry because its mirror image whirls the other way.
Associated with every kind of symmetry is a "group." Stewart explains the group concept in a simple way by considering operations on an equilateral triangle. Rotate it 60 degrees in either direction, and it looks the same. Every operation has an "inverse," that cancels the operation. Imagine the corners of the triangle labeled A, B and C. A 60-degree clockwise rotation alters the corners' positions. If this is followed by a similar rotation the other way, the original positions are restored. If you do nothing to the triangle, this is called the "identity" operation. The set of all symmetry transformations of the triangle constitutes its group.
Stewart's history begins with Babylonian and Greek mathematics, introducing their basic concepts in ways a junior high school student can understand. As his history proceeds, the math slowly becomes more technical, especially when he gets to complex numbers and their offspring, the quaternions and octonions. The history ends with the discoveries of Sophus Lie, for whom Lie groups are named, and the work of a little-known German mathematician, Joseph Killing, who classified Lie groups. Through this historical section, Stewart skillfully interweaves the math with colorful sketches of the lives of the mathematicians involved.
Not until the book's second half does Stewart turn to physics and explain how symmetry and group theory became necessary tools. A chapter on Albert Einstein is a wonderful blend of elementary relativity and details of Einstein's life. Next comes quantum mechanics and particle theory, with several pages on superstrings, the hottest topic in today's theoretical physics. Stewart is a bit skeptical of string theory, which sees all fundamental particles as inconceivably tiny filaments of vibrating energy that can be open-ended or closed like a rubber band. He does not mention two recent books (reviewed in the September 2006 issue of Scientific American) that give string theory a severe bashing. Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics denounces string theory as "not a theory at all," only a mishmash of bizarre speculations in search of a viable theory. Peter Woit's book is entitled Not Even Wrong, a quote from the great Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli. He once described a theory as so bad it was "not even wrong."